[journal entry] on Richard Fulkerson’s “Four Philosophies of Composition”

Since I want to use my blog as a file cabinet as well as a workshop, here’s the first of many journal entires I’ll be writing in my classes.

September 26, 2007

In this article, Richard Fulkerson is mainly trying to help writing teachers avoid giving their students what I would call “the ol’ bait and switch” – that is, to help them avoid prompting students to do one kind of writing (for example, something that asks for personal expression) while then turning around and evaluating that piece of writing as if it was another kind of writing (for example, something in which rhetorical success were the highest priority). Too many writing teachers, he says, think so little, or not at all, about their philosophy of composition, about their definition of what constitutes “good” writing, that, not surprisingly, they end up mixing these philosophies and confusing their students. Fulkerson wants to provide a conceptual framework, or a taxonomy, which will help instructors tune into which philosophy they want to use and thereby to help them align their classroom practice and assignments with their method/philosophy of evaluating.

Fulkerson does this by adapting M.H. Abrams’ four categories of literature (or artistic creation in general) to come up with a parallel set of four to draw out the range of philosophies of composition. Formalists value correct writing, writing judged without reference to a reader, or with only a general reference to a reader; expressivists value writing in which the individual offers personal experience and a personal, “authentic,” voice; mimeticists value writing that reflects critical thinking and logic (in other words, writing that imitates the “real” world [assuming the world is basically rational]); and finally rhetoricists value writing that achieves its desired effect on the reader, whatever that effect is.

Fulkerson knows what a common objection will be (which was mine, too, and still is to a certain extent): the idea that these kinds of writing are all equal and we can just blend them or use them in our classrooms in equal measure – no need to worry about keeping them separate. He thinks if we try to blend these modes, these philosophies, we’ll end up 1) still failing to pinpoint which philosophy of writing is best, and therefore which method of teaching we should be emphasizing. And 2) we’ll end up, Fulkerson seems to be saying, still grading inconsistently, since some student writing is “impossible to classify” (7), and we won’t know exactly which kind of evaluation to use.

I’m still not sure I completely understand or agree with his point here. I would think that, at least theoretically – if we assume each of the four categories have value in themselves – an instructor could develop a four-part “comprehensive composition” (7) course, each part emphasizing one category of writing and each part evaluating each section’s writing accordingly. I can see that that model would be very difficult, but I don’t see why it’s impossible or why Fulkerson is so sure that instructors would confuse modes. He says that the problem is that student writing can often be unclassifiable, but wouldn’t that same phenomenon also happen when one consistent philosophy is used?

Overall, I found this article – and the one by James Berlin – a great way to start my studies of composition theory. I love overviews like this. I think I was already vaguely familiar with the fact that some people value (or over-value) correctness, some personal expression, and some desired effect on audience. But I hadn’t seen these categories so clearly laid out (complete with a sampling of associated scholars), and I had never heard of mimeticism as a way to describe those who value critical thinking and logic. I take Fulkerson’s main point that understanding these philosophies will help us avoid developing any resemblance to used-car salesmen with our students, and I agree that we need to keep thinking about these theories in order to find a sense of which is most valuable. But I’m still not sure they must remain mutually exclusive in our teaching and evaluating.

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